Traditionally, there were three main types of distribution for the work of independent filmmakers: theatrical, broadcast and straight to DVD. Most filmmakers hoped for a combination of all three.
But everything has changed. The digital online world has opened up new avenues of distribution including video on demand, live streaming, and mobile and tablet applications.
Indie filmmakers are harnessing these digital forms of distribution to increase their audience and maintain control of their film, but the “how and where” their film is viewed, the financial recovery of production costs, and their eligibility for awards all factor into their choices.
“Every film has its own path,” said director Tiffany Shlain, remembering something she once heard that stuck.
Today, choosing that path is more complicated then ever.
Traditional Audience or Isolated Viewer?
The lights dim, we share popcorn with the person next to us, and the movie begins. This is one scenario. It could be in a theater, on our couch or in bed.
The second scenario is remarkably different: The other day I watched an entire feature film on my iPhone, alone.
Is one better than another?
Last year, the feature film “For Lovers Only” garnered a lot of attention in the media when it was released solely on iTunes. Ironically, before they even shot the film, Mark Polish, writer and co-producer of the film, and director Michael Polish joked with each other that it could be the first film released on the iPad; the device had been released only a few days before they left to shoot the film in France.
In reality, they planned on doing a standard independent theatrical release via a small distributor, but when they started screening the film, everything changed.
“After a few private screenings, the feedback we were getting kind of pointed us back to our original thought. The film is almost hyper-romantic. It had a level of intimacy that I don’t think played well in large group settings. Michael shot it and framed the film for the big screen, but we were sensing this film was a one-on-one experience,” Mark Polish said.
They created a word-of-mouth strategy, not even allowing bloggers or reviewers to screen the film before it was released.
“We knew we made a black-and-white French new wave film. There was no amount of marketing money or critics’ approval that were going to change people’s perceptions. This film was going to have a limited appeal and that’s it,” Polish said. “We just weren’t interested in trying to be deceptive and sell the film to a mass audience by saying it was a black-and-white sex tape or something like that.”
Polish said the strategy paid off.
Director Tiffany Shlain distributed her short film, “The Tribe,” on iTunes after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. She also had great success with this form of distribution. “The Tribe” became one of the first short films to be No. 1 on iTunes, even racing past industry giants Pixar and Disney.
She chose a very different strategy for her recently released feature documentary, “Connected: An Autobiography about Love, Death and Technology.” After premiering at Sundance and a fall theatrical release, Shlain decided to push back any kind of online release; and she’s done it twice.
“The only way right now you can watch the film — and I’m doing something that’s surprising even me by holding back from letting it be available online — is you can host a screening for your organization,” she said. “A lot of corporations are licensing it, or if you are an educator you can get an educator’s kit. This is going gangbusters right now. We probably won’t release online for a while. It is interesting. I am understanding the value of still having people experience the film in a group setting.”
She calls it a hybrid strategy of distribution. She’s working with Sundance, and her film will appear in a special branded area on iTunes eventually, but she hasn’t decided when. “We will do that when this window dies down a little. We have strong demand, so we keep pushing that back. First we thought this summer, then the fall, now it could be even later.”
Mike Vogel, writer and director of “The Waiting List,” was also interested in achieving a group viewing experience, so after the film’s festival run, he enlisted streaming digital technology in a unique way.
“I was trying to find a good online equivalent for the experience of watching a movie in a theater with other people. Ustream was pretty new at the time, and I liked how you could have people chatting and tweeting while watching. It was like a spontaneous director’s commentary with the benefit of viewers being able to ask questions and get answers right away,” Vogel said. “It definitely had that ‘we’re all watching this together’ feeling that’s tricky to replicate online. Three of the cast members joined in, too.”
Vogel’s streaming events’ “attendance” equaled the audience of a small theater.
“I think this interactive approach doesn’t replace the theatrical experience, but it’s a good way to screen a movie online, which is why I’m exploring the best way to do something similar with Google+ Hangouts,” he said.
Innovative ways for filmmakers to connect with their audience help build long-term loyalty and fans.
Give It Away for Free or Make Them Pay
In general, films cost money to make, especially feature films, so how does digital distribution help recoup these costs or does it? It’s a challenge for filmmakers to navigate the “free versus pay” waters, and things only get more complicated when you add piracy to the mix.
“Press, Pause, Play” producer Philip Marthinsen believes that each avenue of distribution has a core audience that doesn’t stray or cross over as often as many may hope or fear. With this in mind, “Press, Pause, Play” is being distributed on both iTunes for a fee and free on Vimeo.
Marthinsen said, “The ‘iTuners’ won’t jump ship just because a film is available somewhere else for free and ‘Vimeoans’ will not rent on iTunes if it’s not in their home turf. Naturally there are some people who do both, and then it’s just a matter of creating additional value (curation, neat interface, recommendation engine, etc.) for the dollars you pay compared to free.”
Much of the debate regarding digital is about what to do after theatrical releases, but Marthinsen believes audiences should have choices and one avenue of distribution shouldn’t limit utilizing another at the same time.
“I long for a future where a film is released at the cinemas and in digital channels at the same time,” Marthinsen said. “I know this model would work simply because you look for different experiences on any given day — i.e., if you want the full-blown cinematic feel, you would still go the movies even if the film is on iTunes.”
Marthinsen also believes that the hype they received in January on Vimeo increased their earnings on iTunes. Just last week, the documentary was the 46th most rented/sold film on iTunes. The positive word of mouth on Vimeo also helps boost their IMDB rating, which he believes in turn helps sell more on iTunes.
Polish also emphasized how important word of mouth was for the success of their iTunes-only distribution. He cited Twitter as being one of the big contributors to that success. He also added, “We were also fortunate that we didn’t have a budget or an investor that was looking for a big pay day.”
Recouping costs and repaying investors are equally as important as audience building.
Passion Films’ President Allen Chou recollected how shocked he was the first time he found out one of his films, “Inside Iraq: Untold Stories,” had been bootlegged and uploaded. He and the filmmaker were even more shocked to see that the illegal upload had received more than a million views. They eventually had the website take the film down, but within 30 days Netflix was asking to order more DVDs. The buzz the film had generated being free online had helped increase its DVD revenues when people who wanted to see the film could no longer find it online.
Vogel considers both of his feature films to be low-budget and is working to recoup costs in a variety of ways. With his first film, he rented a theater twice, which earned him back about 20 percent of his initial production costs. With the digital distribution of his recent second film, “Did You Kiss Anyone?”, he is trying the “Louis C.K. Method.” He decided to spend less money on festivals and put more money toward advertising on Facebook.
“I think I’ve already sold more downloads than I did DVDs of my first movie,” he said. “In terms of percentages, I got back about 2 percent of the production budget in five days. I foolishly believe all of my movies will be profitable eventually.”
But with investors to answer to, that eventually might not cut it. Shlain said, “We want to change the world, and we want our investors to make their money back so they invest in a lot more documentaries.”
She reminded everyone that once the film is made, the real work often begins.
“It is an interesting time. Some people are very immersed and entrenched in the traditional model, and some people are completely bypassing it,” she said. “I’m very happy that there is an alternative for people that don’t get into the festivals or don’t have a traditional distributor.”
But she’s not naive about the uphill battle that faces independent filmmakers.
“The whole model is screwy because so many filmmakers work hard to get into a festival like Sundance and then run out of money and steam. My thing is, you need to reserve half the amount of energy you use for making the film as you do for getting it out there,” she said. “No one cares about your film as much as you do.”
Is All Really Fair in Digital Distribution?
Film festivals are often accused of being a closed world, where one needs a golden key or “golden letter of recommendation” to enter, but it’s no guarantee a film will be accepted on either iTunes or Netflix or any other form of VOD distribution either. Relying on these companies as a sole form of distribution can be risky.
Finding a distributor is usually the best way to reach VOD companies, but that isn’t always easy. Distribber, a company that provides this service for an upfront fee, can’t promise a film will be accepted by every company. Its website’s FAQ Page clearly explains the complexities of pricing and what types of control filmmakers can expect to maintain and what decisions will be solely made by iTunes, Amazon, Neflix or a variety of other companies offering VOD services. The bottom line is these services often don’t allow filmmakers to set pricing for their films.
Marthinsen shares one downfall of mixing free and paid in a distribution model. He said a filmmaker must be prepared to give up deals with certain cinemas and broadcasters. Because, he said, “many won’t settle for anything but exclusive rights.” This is another important thing to keep in mind.
Chou takes it a step further by saying that many digital aggregators aren’t interested in a film that hasn’t had a theatrical release. He believes it is always challenging for independent films to make back their production costs. His distribution company partners with Hulu, Netflix and Amazon but also uses services like Gravitas to reach other digital aggregators.
“Some filmmakers cherry pick, but it’s important to toss out a wide blanket when it comes to digital distribution,” he said.
He said things are working more cyclically now. Despite the decrees in DVD sales, they often have a higher financial return for the filmmaker, and success with VOD can boost DVD sales. He cited the example of “The Parking Lot Movie” as “shattering the theory that digital kills DVD.” The film got tens of thousands of reviews when it was available as streaming only on Netflix, so it increased the demand for DVDs from an audience that wanted to watch it in that format.
Chou also feels it is important to let the audience decide the method they want to view a film. Options can be key to a successful distribution strategy.
And then there’s the piracy
There is another downside to relying solely on digital distribution: piracy. Many VOD models allow for downloading, which make piracy of films easier. Piracy can increase when distribution is limited. Polish pointed out, “We didn’t prepare for the overwhelming international response. Therefore, that led to piracy. I think next time we will identify digital platforms in other countries and try and make sure the film is available.”
Timing and planning out digital distribution strategies is just as important as traditional distribution strategies.
Another downside to digital-only distribution is ineligibility for many awards. The financial cost of four walling a film isn’t in most independent filmmakers’ budgets. The Oscars aren’t the only prestigious film award that requires a theatrical run to be qualified. This was disappointing as well for Polish.
“We were considering a small theatrical run just to qualify for the Independent Spirit Awards,” he said. “I personally felt Stana (Katic)’s performance was certainly worthy as well as Michael’s camera work. The disturbing fact is we couldn’t find theater space that didn’t cost us a fortune. Hopefully, award qualification will adapt to the digital age.”
This is becoming a hot debate and one that will get more and more attention as films move to digital-only platforms.
Are Apps for Everyone?
Many are touting mobile and tablet apps as the new platform for content distribution. They are certainly attempting to be an answer to the piracy issue. Just last week Mobovivo announced that its platform was now able to deliver an end-to-end solution to transcode, securely distribute, market and monetize television shows and films across a wide range of devices. Despite some do-it-yourself app development companies such as MyAppBuilder or SassMob, they’re still considered to be a large financial investment — in some case, exceeding the budget of many independent films.
Tim Horsburgh of Kartemquin Films said this about mobile and tablet apps: “I know there are plenty of indies exploring this field, but it would take a filmmaker who really wants to give this a go for us to consider it — or, from an organizational standpoint, some major funding.”
Several of the other filmmakers echoed this thought and created something interactive that ran on the desktop. “Press, Pause, Play” has one that collects content from various online services such as YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, Twitter, Spotify and others. “We haven’t done it for mobile devices, again simply because of resource limitations,” Marthinsen said.
Vogel created what he calls an “Interactive Screenplay” that works when viewing his first film on YouTube. He’s working to slowly develop that into an app as finances become available. One thing is clear: Everyone understands that interactivity is becoming an industry standard.
Shlain is releasing a mobile app for “Connected” at this year’s SXSW. They built the cost of creating an app into their initial budget. She hopes the app “fosters more community and spreads the dialogue.” But with technology shifting as fast as it is, she also acknowledged that “everyone is throwing spaghetti against the receiving wall of the Internet.”
She knows they’ll be refining and tweaking the app. “It is an organic thing. You learn how it is working by how people are using it,” she said.
Understanding how people are using an app is powerful knowledge.
Creating the app is only the beginning. It must have content added, keep up with technological and platform changes, and one must be able to harness the power of the analytics companies in order to know how, where and with whom the app is connecting. These all come with a cost that blurs distribution and marketing budget lines.
Horsburgh continued his thoughts by addressing an ongoing battle indie filmmakers have with the “Hollywood system.”
“It seems to me like the corporate behemoths will have this space all to themselves for quite some time. I can’t help thinking the real excitement from the corporate media comes from knowing the barriers to entry are high enough to allow them to be first to colonize this space. Walled gardens are so much more preferable and familiar than the mess of dealing with the Internet and free,” he said.
Does film length Matter Online?
Can feature films truly find their niche outside of theaters when buzz in recent years has been about the short attention span of online audiences? IAWTV Chairman and BSLS founder Paul Kontonis believes that all lengths can be viewed online, but “features are best watched on the most immersive device the user wants to view it on; TV is the top at home followed closely by iPad.”
He reminds us of the social factor involved in viewing. “People want to watch content when they want to be excited about the release of content at a specific time so they can check in and tweet with others while it is going on,” he said.
The question may be if audiences will trade putting their phones away for almost two hours and relaxing to watch a movie in a darkened theater, for the ability to stop and start in short intervals in order to connect and share their experience. How and where audiences will watch films in the near future will be tied both to how we are developing as a society and what technological breakthroughs may dictate.
Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called “Truth in Documentary Filmmaking” and is currently producing the documentary, “The Art of Memories.”
Correction: This post has been changed to correct the spelling of Philip Marthinsen’s name.